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Geopolitics

Kuril Islands, Why Russia's Conflict With Japan Matters In Ukraine

Over the past two months, as tensions rose in Ukraine, Russian has launched new missiles from the contested islands north of Japan. Kyiv and Tokyo have made it clear that they are firmly aligned with each other and with Washington. Moscow's eastern flank opens major strategic questions, including China's role.

American submarine monitored Russian exercises in the Kuril Islands

American submarine monitored Russian exercises in the Kuril Islands

U.S. Pacific Fleet via Flickr
Petro Shevchenko

-Analysis-

KYIV — Even with everyone's attention at the Russian-Ukrainian border, tensions 5,000 miles to the east between Moscow and Tokyo over the contested Kuril Islands are not abating. And inevitably the conflicts are connected.

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Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has said he will "persistently continue" negotiations with Moscow on the return of the Northern Territories (four islands in the Southern Ridge). The United States, Japan's main ally, has publicly supported the demands, recognizing Tokyo's sovereignty over the islands due north of the capital and off the eastern coast of Russia's Far East territories.

The Russians have responded with saber rattling, starting military exercises in the Kuril Islands, which prompted an indignant response from Tokyo and a resolution approved by the Japanese parliament in support of Ukraine against the backdrop of the fight with Russia.


This all means that Russian-Japanese relations through the Kurils are deteriorating rapidly. Russia has augmented its provocations of military planes or ships entering Japan's air and sea space. In addition, the announcement of the Russia-China alliance also takes aim at Japan, with Beijing as Tokyo's main regional rival.

History of violence

The Kurils have never been peaceful. Hundreds of years ago, the indigenous people of the islands, the Ainu, fought fiercely against both the Russians and the Japanese. As a result of imperial feuding and agreements between Moscow and Tokyo, the territories became part of Japan, until they were seized by the Soviet army at the end of World War II.

Tokyo subsequently refused to sign a peace treaty with the Soviets, and to this day disputes Moscow's claim of sovereignty over the four southern Kuril Islands closest to Japan: Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan, and the Habomai island chain. The Russians consider the islands part of Sakhalin Oblast, the Japanese consider them part of Hokkaido Prefecture.

Moscow offered Tokyo a compromise solution: to give Japan two islands (Shikotan and Habomai) under the condition of a peace treaty. But the Japanese refused because they insist on getting back four, not two, territories. Meanwhile, both the United States and the European Union support Japan's demands to return the territories, while Moscow is exercising its right to own them by building up its armed forces in the Kuril Islands and by conducting continuous military exercises.

For Moscow, the return of the islands would be a manifestation of weakness

In 2021, the Russians fired missiles from the islands at conditional targets in the Pacific Ocean. In the summer of that year, some 10,000 military personnel, including the Navy and Air Force, conducted training in the waters of the Sea of Japan; meanwhile, T-72B3 tanks have also appeared in the Kuril Islands.

Over the past two months, as tensions rose in Ukraine, new missile firings were launched on Kunashir Island east of Hokkaido near La Perouse Strait, provoking considerable Japanese irritation. Hirokazu Matsuno, Secretary-General of the Cabinet of Ministers, said: "Further Russian militarization of the islands is unacceptable."

On Feb. 12, an American submarine monitored Russian exercises in the Kuril Islands, and the U.S. military attaché in Moscow summoned the Russian Defense Ministry over the incident.

Main street of Severo-Kurilsk, town on Paramushir Island, Kuril Islands, Pacific ocean north from Japan

Main street of Severo-Kurilsk, town on Paramushir Island, Kuril Islands, Pacific ocean north from Japan

Victor Morozov via Wikipedia

What Moscow has to lose

Though small, the islands are strategic. They make it easier for Moscow to get its ships into the Pacific Ocean from the Sea of Okhotsk, especially in the winter. The second reason is regional security. Moscow is worried that Tokyo will deploy its armed forces and medium- and long-range missiles there once it receives the Kurils. Then Russia's security policy in the Far East will come to naught.

Nor does Russia want to allow U.S. Marines stationed in Japan to gain access to the islands. By losing control over the Kuril Islands, Russia would effectively open the gates for foreign military vessels to the Sea of Okhotsk, which Moscow considers its inland territory.

There is also an economic rationale. The Russian fishing industry in and around the Kuril Islands is seriously developed: three million tons of fish and seafood are caught here annually. The waters of the Kuril Islands is considered one of the best places on the planet for fishing. Moscow has opened an unusual economic zone on the islands. There are also valuable deposits of oil and gas, gold and silver and titanomagnetite ores in the shelf and on the islands themselves. On Iturup, there are almost the world's largest reserves of rhenium — a rare-earth metal used in aerospace construction.

Finally, there are the political stakes. According to Moscow, the return of the islands to Japan would be a manifestation of weakness and a decline in international prestige. It would also weaken Russia's position with regard to its takeover of Crimea. Moreover, the Russian Constitution prohibits the alienation of the territory of the Russian state to other countries.

Two fronts - European and Asian

The U.S. is forming two flanks against Russia and China: one in Europe, the other in Asia. While Washington relies on NATO and its allies in Europe, the force in East Asia is led by Japan, regional alliances QUAD (U.S., Japan, India and Australia) and AUKUS (America, Britain and Australia).

A public example of this was the meeting of foreign ministers of the QUAD bloc in Australia on February 11, 2022. The main topic was "escalation of the crisis between the West and Russia through Ukraine." The countries decided that they would jointly oppose Moscow's military build-up in both Europe and Asia.

Moscow has become Tokyo's obvious adversary, but a secondary one

That is, by publicly supporting Japan's demands on the Kurils, America is pushing Tokyo to more actively confront the Russia-China alliance. Joint statements by the Japanese prime minister and the U.S. president about the inadmissibility of further Russian aggression against Ukraine, the U.S.-Japanese military exercises, the assertive rhetoric of Japanese top officials about the return of the Kuril Islands — all of this shows that Tokyo has firmly taken a strong position of support with Washington. Meanwhile, Moscow responds just as clearly with active military exercises and missile launches in the region. The message is essentially: "Your challenge is accepted, from now on Japan is an unambiguous enemy, we will confront it."

Location of the Kuril Islands in the Western Pacific between Japan and the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia

Location of the Kuril Islands in the Western Pacific between Japan and the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia

NormanEinstein via Wikipedia

Crimea, Donbas, and the Kurils

On the Ukrainian-Japanese track, Kyiv has strategic and economic prospects to consider. First, Ukraine can link the return of Donbas and Crimea to the problem of Russia's giving Japan the disputed Kuril Islands. In doing so, Kyiv and Tokyo should support and cooperate with each other. We should try to reach a common public consensus.

Ukraine has already received a positive signal from Tokyo: in case of further aggression by Moscow, Japan will impose tougher sanctions against Russia. Unfortunately, and we have to admit this, Japan had in the past actively promoted in Kyiv the idea of binding Crimea and the Kuril Islands. This was a major missed opportunity by Ukraine.

It is important to keep in mind that Japan's main adversary is China, not Russia. Moscow has become Tokyo's obvious adversary, but a secondary one. Now Japan will not reclaim the Kurils by force. Tokyo's current sanctions against Russia are more decorative, rather than truly crushing.

Japan has now urged its citizens and businesses to leave Ukraine. But despite its pragmatic relations with Russia, Japan is already definitively standing with Washington against Russia. This means one thing: Ukraine has carte blanche for more strategic, deep, and mutually beneficial cooperation with Tokyo on the geopolitical and economic track. Now it is necessary for Kyiv to use it to maximize the potential opportunities in its favor.

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